Frank Brassil is the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s International Territorial Vice President for Oceania. Here he explores the enduring quality of the Society and what it means to be a Vincentian today.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul is a lay Catholic multinational organisation whose members live their faith through service to the most vulnerable, marginalised and excluded. Founded in the 1830s by a group of French university students led by Frédéric Ozanam and mentored by Emmanuel Bailey and Sr Rosalie Rendu DC, the organisation is present in over 150 countries and is one of the most recognised and well-regarded volunteer social welfare organisations in the world.
The Society is unique in Catholic organisations and in the community of organisations that serve the poor. I want to explore what it is that makes the Society unique and has sustained it and enabled it to grow and survive for nearly 200 years. I also want to examine some of the challenges that arise from the way the Society functions so that we can recognise those challenges and respond appropriately. Finally, I want to explore how this affects people who are members of the Society. What does it mean to be Vincentian?
It seems to me that there are at least four unique features of the Society.
1. The conference structure
The idea of the conference is the genius of the Society. A conference is a group of people in a village, town, parish or any other identifiable area or social grouping, who come together to live their faith through service to those in their community who need help, primarily using local resources. The Society is owned by its members, and membership exists primarily through joining a conference.
Conferences have wide latitude and autonomy to adapt themselves to their local context and make decisions about the kind, extent and form of support they give. Moreover, conferences are accountable for the way they use the Society’s resources to help people, which is key to being Vincentian and ensuring accountability for the service we give and the resources we use.
Democracy is central to being Vincentian. We link conferences through a council structure that goes all the way to the International Council General, but the process of determining who forms our councils is from the bottom up. Conferences elect their presidents, who form regional or area councils. These elect a president who takes part in a central or diocesan council. This ‘bottom-up’ way of forming higher councils is democratic and reflects the interests of conference members. Those with more senior positions cannot control who is elected at the various levels, and the elected members are always in the majority on a council.
The council structure binds conferences into the worldwide organisation that is the Society of St Vincent de Paul and makes each conference a part of the Society. The entire council structure exists to support, sustain and extend the work of conferences. One can rightly describe the structure of the Society as a ‘chain of support’, not a ‘chain of command’.
In the Society, the president of a conference or council has a special role, and the role holds great respect and trust. Being a president entails two distinct responsibilities. The first is leadership within the conference or council. In this role, the president is called on to make decisions to ensure the continuing effective operation of the conference or council. Presidents must be sensitive to the participation of conference or council members in making decisions and must at all times respect the rights of members to be informed and to participate in decisions. There is a balance to be found so that decisions are made democratically and with participation, but in a way that does not hamper sensible governance.
The second role of a president is participation in the next higher council. This participation is not merely as the representative of the conference or council from which the president is elected. It is a full engagement with and responsibility for the governance of the Society at the scale of the council. A council member is responsible for making appropriate decisions in the best interests of the Society within the scope of that council and, when necessary, transferring decisions to a higher council if that is the more appropriate level. At a certain level, matters of legal corporate governance become essential to conducting the business of the council. In these cases, council members’ responsibilities are broadened to include accountability under legislation, including (but not limited to) corporations law, charities and not-for-profit law and laws relating to safeguarding and protection of vulnerable people.
In undertaking roles at these levels, being Vincentian requires that there be no honour or status attached to holding any office—it is merely an opportunity for service. The Society requires its senior office holders to have a deep humility in carrying out their role and a willingness to let go once the term has concluded. Any sense of entitlement or ownership of any role is inconsistent with being Vincentian. Equally, a council member has to accept the decisions of his or her own council and all higher councils and work for their implementation even if the decision was not the preferred decision of member.
2. A lay Catholic organisation
The Society’s founders were dedicated to a Catholic foundation of the Society. This is evident in the writings of Frédéric Ozanam, which preceded and informed the encyclicals that now form Catholic Social Teaching. The political context of the time was not at all friendly to the Church, and it took considerable courage to construct the Society as they did. Ozanam was a noted Catholic apologist, but he was careful to establish the Society as a lay-controlled organisation, respectful of the clergy and the hierarchy but never ceding control to them. Most Vincentians think this has served us well and, it can be argued, with the significant challenges the Church now faces, that the Society’s governance structure would be a good model for the Church if it really wants to change.
A core element of Catholic Social Teaching is the recognition of the intrinsic human dignity of every person. Other value systems may argue similarly, but as a Catholic organisation, we must recognise each person as a human being, with the same God-given dignity as any other. We do not help people because we are privileged and kind-hearted or because it makes us feel good. We help people because their intrinsic value as humans cries out for justice and equality, and we cannot ignore it.
A second element of Catholic Social Teaching is the principle of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be made at the level of their greatest effect but as close to the point of effect as possible. In the Society, we sustain the autonomy of conferences as an exercise of subsidiarity, and we try to ensure that each level of the council structure exercises its authority consistently with its ability to give effect to its decisions. There will always be debates about what is the appropriate level for making decisions, but the debate itself is a sign of vigorous exercise of subsidiarity.
Each council has a responsibility to attend to those matters that are best managed at the scale at which the council functions, but always on behalf of conference members and always consistent with their best interest. For example, the growth of the Vinnies Shops as a business has seen the management of shops move from conference to state council level. This has not been painless or without problems, but the overall improvements in the shops as a business that sustains the Society and is a face for the Society in the community are demonstrable.
The third element of Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity. Vincentian solidarity binds us as a worldwide organisation, not just a collection of local groups with a shared name. We serve first the people of our own community, but we do not limit ourselves to that. We share what we have with Vincentians across the country and other parts of the world, both to support them as Vincentians and to support their service to their communities.
The other dimension of being a Catholic organisation is our essential spirituality, which derives from the Gospels and from the sacramental nature of the faith, especially the Eucharist. We see Christ present in the poor and, because Christ present in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, we see the poor in a eucharistic way. To see Christ, we visit the poor. To serve Christ, we serve the poor. To love Christ, we love the poor.
The Society does not take a narrow view of its spirituality. We welcome in our conferences, shops, special works and staff people from other backgrounds who feel an alignment with what the Society does and the values and beliefs that drive us. For some people, sharing in the work of the Society is their expression of their spirituality, and we welcome the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work through us.
Equally, we apply no test of spirituality nor any requirements for any particular spiritual practice in those we seek to serve. We simply hope that the gift of our time and service may generate a spiritual response in the people we serve, which may manifest itself in ways we never see. We provide an opportunity for the Spirit to work.
3. The Rule
The Rule is our foundation document and defines our heart and essence as an organisation. All Vincentians are urged to read The Rule and to return to it frequently.
The Rule has three sections:
Part 1 is the general statement of the nature, objectives and values of the Society. It applies to all Vincentians everywhere.
Part 2 is concerned with the international governance of the Society but contains some important expressions of Vincentian thinking.
Part 3 is where each national council adapts Parts 1 and 2 in the context of the needs and capabilities of their country.
The Rule is a thin book. It is not a large compendium of detailed rules and prescriptions—it is a statement of high-level principles and values and contains some specific detail that defines the Society as the Society. It provides considerable flexibility for local contexts, but its values and principles define the Society and are binding for Vincentians.
I am greatly concerned when I hear members understating the importance of The Rule. Sometimes it is said that The Rule is ‘only a guide’ or ‘a framework’. This fundamentally misunderstands its importance, and one is left wondering what ethos is being sustained if it is not in The Rule.
To operate as a large organisation in the community, we have to establish legal entities to enable the Society to own property, employ people, manage business risk and meet requirements for accountability and transparency. These can be in the form of incorporated associations or entities under the corporations law, such as Companies Limited by Guarantee. Confusion sometimes arises between the Society and its legal entities. Where the constitutions of such entities have been inconsistent with The Rule, difficulties have arisen if there has been any attempt to bypass or override The Rule.
The move in recent years to Companies Limited by Guarantee as the corporate entity has helped to clarify this because it segregates the corporate entity within the appropriate council governance structure and does not involve most members.
Being a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul means being a member of that international organisation of charity defined by The Rule. Participation in any legal corporate entity is parallel to the Society and subsidiary to The Rule. All corporate entities, to the maximum extent possible, must include The Rule within their constitutions and never act in any manner inconsistent with The Rule.
The Rule is a document produced by people in a given context and it is not perfect. It is capable of being changed, but only at the highest level of the Society with the participation of national presidents from around the world. This is as it should be and, even though there are some parts of The Rule some may wish to see changed, doing that affects members across the world and the process is necessarily challenging.
By and large, The Rule is an excellent document for the Society and should be treasured by all Vincentians. The Rule defines us and it makes us what we are. It is foundational to us as an organisation.
4. A worldwide network of charity
Frédéric Ozanam spoke of building a ‘worldwide network of charity’ and the international character of the Society is a core part of being Vincentian. The Society is an excellent exemplar of the adage: ‘think globally—act locally’. Conferences are, through the council structure, part of a multinational organisation that is present in most parts of the world.
Members, however, can sometimes limit their vision and perspective to their local concerns. I have heard people say that they want money raised in their shop to be spent in their parish, town or district. This is not Vincentian. As a Catholic organisation, we have a concern for people in need everywhere and there is no basis, when we have resources to do so, to exclude people in other places from our support. Obviously, those at hand have the first call on our support, but—especially in wealthier countries such as Australia—we are able to share with a wider world and we are called on by the Gospels, The Rule and by Catholic Social Teaching to do so.
Twinning is conferences standing in solidarity, linking with and sharing resources with conferences in other countries. This is a powerful and effective model, but it takes a lot of work and effort to sustain it. The highly decentralised way the Society works means that communications are a great challenge. Failures in communication lead to failures in understanding and failures in trust. Modern technologies are making this easier and we need to become better at using them. It is often easier for a conference member in a remote country to send a text message than to write a letter. Solidarity between Vincentians should encourage persistence and the willingness to try alternatives when communications are difficult.
Twinning is only a part of the international structure of the Society and we should see over time our bonds with our Vincentian sisters and brothers strengthening and growing.
To bring this together, being Vincentian to me comprises some essential things:
- Our conference structure that enables members to live their faith through service to the most vulnerable and excluded in their community;
- Our status as an independent lay Catholic organisation informed by Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic spirituality that is totally responsible for itself and is led and operated by its members;
- The Rule as our foundation document, which defines who we are and the principles and values that govern and guide us; and
- The Society as a worldwide network of charity, bringing Ozanam’s vision to reality.
These are what make being Vincentian unique. As Vincentians we seek to fulfil our mission through service to those who rightly claim our time and resources in justice and charity.